Rachel Sexton is a single, attractive Intelligence Analyst for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). She has a strained relationship (with good reason) with her father, Senator Sedgewick Sexton, who's currently running for President against the incumbent President Zachary Herney. The Senator has been gradually gaining support due to focusing on an overlooked issue: the fact that NASA has cost the tax payers billions of dollars that would have been better spent elsewhere with little results beyond a string of blunders and "pictures of space dust". Sexton denounces Herney's enthusiastic support of NASA as harmful and plans upon election to dismantle NASA and open up space exploration to the private sector, something that obviously causes a lot of people to fear the worst.
One day, straight out of the blue, Rachel is summoned by the President and then sent to Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, all in utmost secrecy as to why. There she meets Michael Tolland, a celebrity oceanographer and documentary host, and Corky Marlinson, a highly respected astrophysicist. Both are members of a special civilian scientist team assigned to investigate an "amazing find". Said "find" being a meteorite embedded in the ice containing fossils similar, but not identical, to species found on Earth; in other words, conclusive proof of extraterrestrial life. NASA is incredibly excited, and hopes this will serve as proof that NASA deserves its continued existence...
...However, Michael then notices an irregularity in the meteorite's extraction pit. He, Rachel, Corky and experienced glaciologist Dr. Norah Mangor venture into the Arctic wastes to survey the extraction pit with ground penetrating radar and make a shocking discovery: the meteorite was actually drilled into the shaft, after which the salt water under it froze. The discovery is actually false!
Before they can tell anyone of this, they are immediately attacked by a Delta Force team apparently sent to prevent this from coming to light. What follows is a struggle to survive the ordeal and find out the truth: did NASA stage the discovery and prevent its potential dismantlement in case Sexton wins the election? Or was it the current administration, going to extreme lengths to stay in office? Meanwhile, Senator Sexton sends his assistant, Gabrielle Ashe, to investigate the matter after noticing some inconsistencies himself. What she finds, however, will not only cause her to doubt NASA's integrity but also that of her employer...
This novel features examples of:
- Author Filibuster: Several characters give speeches on why letting the private sector explore space is a bad idea, more in comparison to those in which the opposite is stated.
- Banging for Help: Trapped on an ice floe with Michael and Corky after an attack by the Delta Force and quickly succumbing to hypothermia, Rachel uses her ice ax to bang out SOS. Rachel knows she and the men will be long dead by the time the hydrophones listening in hundreds of miles away hear the signal, triangulate their position, and dispatch a rescue team, but she hopes that the discovery of their dead bodies will prompt an investigation into the anomaly in the extraction pit. The trio is promptly rescued by the Navy submarine USS Charlotte, which was stationed three miles away on a classified mission.
- Big Bad: Senator Sexton might be a Jerkass, but William Pickering serves as the conspiracy's true mastermind, orchestrating the conspiracy in order to keep NASA afloat, having anyone who finds out the truth killed.
- Bioluminescence Is Cool: The first clue that the meteorite find is fake; the supposedly-ages-old shaft contains glowing (i.e. fresh, not long-dead as they should be) plankton.
- Black Helicopter: the Delta Force's unmarked Kiowa Warrior.
- Blood Knight: The Delta Force operatives seems to enjoy their job a little too much.
- Brand X: Averted: all of the aerospace companies mentioned in Sexton's illicit meeting with their representatives are real.
- Dead Man Writing: Rachel's intent when she starts Banging for Help on the ice floe - she knows that a rescue plane won't reach them in time, but she hopes that once their bodies are found someone will investigate the damning piece of evidence she's got on her person:"The plane would find three bodies on an iceberg. Frozen. Dead. One would be an NRO employee… and she would be carrying a strange piece of thermal paper in her pocket.A GPR printout.Norah Mangor's final legacy.When the rescuers studied the printout, the mysterious insertion tunnel beneath the meteorite would be revealed. From there, Rachel had no idea what would happen, but at least the secret would not die with them here on the ice."
- The Dog Bites Back: Sexton fires (and punches) Gabrielle when she calls him out on letting his daughter die for the sympathy vote. She exposes their affair in retaliation.
- Eaten Alive: Happens to Delta-Two and Delta-Three near the end by a bunch of sharks, nonetheless.
- Engineered Public Confession: How Senator Sexton gets his comeuppance: he gives to the press what he thought was the evidence of the meteorite cover-up but Gabrielle switched the envelope with one containing pictures of the sexual tryst between the two which he has vigorously denied to the press much earlier.
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear / Just Desserts: Both Delta-Two and Delta-Three wind up being eaten by sharks near the end.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Despite the fact that Pickering is willing to murder several scientists and one of his own subordinates for what he believes to be the greater good, he is still a grieving father, having lost his daughter.
- Faceless Goons: Interestingly invoked: the fact that Delta One, Two and Three are never physically described, coupled with only being referred to by their codenames conveys this impression.
- Even more curious considering Brown's penchant for using single assassins with distinct physical features in his other books.
- Government Conspiracy: Subverted, seeing as Pickring acted without the government's knowledge.
- Iconic Item: Ming's long, camel hair coat. When he's drowned in the extraction pit by the Delta Force, the coat's silhouette is how the other scientists recognize him on the printout from ground penetrating radar."But what Norah had never expected to see was the hazy grayish outline of a humanoid form floating halfway down the shaft… the GPR had captured a faint trace of the victim's heavy coat, what could only be a familiar, long, dense camel hair. 'It's… Ming,' she said in a whisper. 'He must have slipped.'"
- Literal Surveillance Bug: Delta Force uses these.
- Meaningful Name: Senator Sexton and his daughter Rachel. The former is a corrupt politician who likes to have his way with his hot secretary, the latter, well, is just sexy. Obviously.
- The Password Is Always "Swordfish": Sexton's computer password is "SSS", standing for "Senator Sedgewick Sexton". When Gabrielle finds out that his password is only 3 characters long, Sexton goes on a ramble about how he's too old to memorize passwords, only for her to demonstrate that that line of thinking is insufficient when she types in the password that she guessed just by looking at him when he types it. Sexton then changes it...to POTUSSS, which Gabrielle is also able to easily guess.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Senator Sexton is a misogynist and a homophobe who thinks that "if it were up to me, the faggots wouldn't even have the right to vote" to himself while simultaneously agreeing to tone down condemnation of same-sex marriage in his campaign. Later on, he tells his daughter "you're just like your mother: idealistic and small. Women cannot grasp the true meaning of power" after Rachel called him out on leaving her to die.
- Prayer Pose: Lampshaded; the main character notes that the others might think she's doing this when they're left for dead on an ice flow but is actually preparing to tap out morse code, since she knows that the organisation she works for has a listening post (although they're actually saved by a passing submarine that was investigating all the activity that lead to said stranding).
- Red Herring: Lawrence Ekstrom and Marjorie Tench initially seem to be the masterminds behind the conspiracy. Tench is a pawn, while Ekstrom is not in on the conspiracy at all.
- Second Love: Rachel Sexton to Michael Tolland.
- Shark Pool: At the end, one of the heroes threatens the villain by holding a wounded assassin over a large group of frenzied sharks.
- Smug Snake: Senator Sexton is an arrogant politician who is willing to use any situation to create political opportunities.
- Spotting the Thread: Basically the reason the fake meteorite is exposed; all the evidence supported the idea that the meteor was real, but once they discovered a few microscopic fish under the meteorite, introducing the idea that it had been planted in that iceberg on purpose, Rachel, Michael and Corky are able to take another look at the evidence and admit that there are other explanations for the evidence beyond it coming from outer space.
- Sleazy Politician: Senator Sexton is a lech, and an unscrupulous individual who is in bed with several private aerospace companies.
- The Spymaster: William Pickering is the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, whose organization collects information for military and intelligence use.
- Strawman Political: Senator Sexton is a negative portrayal of a politician who is in favor of space privatization for his own gain, in addition to being homophobic and misogynistic.
- Threatening Shark: A bunch of these show up towards the end and wind up eating Delta-Two and Delta-Three.
- Vasquez Always Dies: Dr. Mangor.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: William Pickering. He orchestrated the meteorite forgery and the attempted silencing of Rachel, Michael and Corky so NASA's sensitive data wouldn't end up in the hands of the private sector and potentially in those of the USA's enemies. He's so dedicated to his country that he goes to these lengths to save NASA despite its incompetence being indirectly responsible for his only daughter's death.
- Would Hit a Girl: Sexton slaps Gabrielle when he fires her. This is the most petty of the things he's doing at the time.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Rachel's aquaphobia, which she developed after falling through a frozen lake as a child.
- Incidentally this makes her another Dan Brown protagonist who developed a phobia after falling into some water as a child.